I was going to write this week about civil-military
relations, but when I emailed my editor to let him know, he had something else
in mind: "Sounds good," he responded politely. "But I was hoping you would
write about the snow."
Fair enough. No one here in what we used to call the "Capital
of the Free World" is interested in civil-military relations, because we're
all too busy thinking about snow.
Yesterday's weather forecast -- repeated with growing frenzy
throughout the day by every news outlet in the region -- warned that over the
next 12 to 24 hours it would snow, although it was always possible, of course,
that it wouldn't snow. But if it snowed,
the meteorologists assured us, it would probably snow a lot, or a little, or
some amount in between. Then, at some point during the morning, afternoon,
or evening, the snow, if any, might or might not turn partially, or completely,
to rain, freezing rain, sleet, hail, sheet ice, or a plague of locusts.
Surely this is fodder for a column on foreign policy. Right?
Sure. First rule of opinion journalism: Find a metaphor, and be it ever so
forced, clumsy, or idiotic,
run like hell with it!
We can do that here at Foreign Policy, boys and girls. Read
it and weep:
Here we are, in the capital city of the most powerful state on Earth,
and yet we're paralyzed by uncertainty. We have the best weather forecasting
models money can buy, the most hysterical weather reporters early 21st-century
journalism is capable of producing, and an army of snow plows poised to deploy,
but we still don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. And aside from the largely
ritualistic purchases of flashlight batteries, most of us don't have a clue
about what, if anything, we should be doing to prepare.
The dismayingly vague weather forecast is -- obviously! -- a metaphor
for the emerging global security environment, about which we are similarly uncertain and
(Please, hold the applause. These metaphors just come to me.
I'm gifted like that.)
What, you don't get it? For weather forecasting models,
Intelligence Estimates. For hysterical
weather reporters, substitute equally shrill politicians.
For armies of snowplows, substitute the mighty U.S. military.
Having established a dubious link to the snow -- much of which did indeed fall -- we can now
proceed to the argument.
The outlook for the global security environment is uncertain, and we are confused and scared. My metaphor
unfortunately starts to break down here, for when it comes to snowstorms in
Washington, we're much more scared than we should be: The panicky shoppers at
my local Whole Foods looked like they were preparing for something akin to the Siege
of Stalingrad. When it comes to the
global security environment, however, we're not nearly as scared as we ought to
So here's my message from the heart of the whirling
storm: Be afraid. Be a whole lot more afraid than you are now.
But don't fear the things you usually fear: the serial
killer who might be at large in the neighborhood or even the suicide
bomber who might hit the local mall. The media and the shriller politicians
love that stuff, though in the grand scheme of things, those threats pale in
comparison to the threats we usually don't
That's not because we haven't been told to be scared. On the
contrary, we've so often heard that we live in a complex,
dangerous, and uncertain world that we tune it out. We nod -- we may even
sagely repeat such phrases ourselves at cocktail parties or when called upon to
deliver pompous conference remarks -- and we tell ourselves we get it. But we
don't feel it in our bones.
We should. Get past the sound bites and the justifiable
worries about political threat
inflation, and be frightened.
Let me try to breathe some life into the clichés.
The world has grown
more complex. Believe it. The world now contains more people living in more
states than ever before, and we're all more interconnected. A hundred years
ago, the world population was about 1.8 billion, there were roughly 60 sovereign
states in the world, the automobile was still a rarity, and there were no
commercial passenger flights and no transcontinental telephone service. Fifty years
ago, global population had climbed to more than 3 billion and there were 115 U.N. member states, but air
travel was still for the wealthy and the personal computer still lay two
decades in the future.
Today? We've got 7 billion people living in 192 U.N. member
states and a handful of other territories. These 7 billion people take 93,000 commercial flights a day from 9,000 airports, drive 1 billion cars,
and carry 7 billion mobile
phones around with them -- phones they can use to monitor their heart rate,
purchase stocks, post restaurant reviews, share family photos, create how-to
videos for aspiring suicide bombers, watch the news, or even check the weather
forecast in Washington, D.C. (for all the good that will do them).
This means we're more interconnected. A hundred years ago,
human activity inside the borders of one state could have little direct or immediate
effect on people living in other states. Today, that's no longer true. A
collapse in one state's stock market can trigger rapid meltdowns in other
markets, destructive computer viruses can spread in hours or days, and carbon
emissions in the United States and China can change sea levels in the
Netherlands -- or cause increasingly severe and unpredictable weather around
the globe. (Have I mentioned that we're getting some
The world has grown
more dangerous. To devotees of Steven
Pinker, this may seem like a baffling claim. After all, in many respects,
the last century has seen enormous advances in human health, prosperity, and
security. You, reader, face pretty good odds of living a long and safe life,
given FP's current reader demographics. But with respect to species survival,
the world has grown more dangerous. Notwithstanding recent increases in life
expectancy and reductions in violent conflict, humans now possess the
unprecedented ability to destroy large chunks of the human race, and possibly
the Earth itself.
In 1945, the development and use of the atom bomb opened the
door to global cataclysm. Today, there are an estimated 17,000 nuclear warheads
in the possession of some nine states -- and though the near-term threat of
interstate nuclear conflict has greatly diminished since the end of the Cold
War, nuclear material is now less controlled and less controllable. And nukes
aren't the only thing that might plausibly keep us up at night. If you want to
give yourself a good scare, do some bedtime reading on bioengineered
threats or even the various possible lethal epidemics that might start without
help from malign human actors and then spread around the world in weeks, thanks to
modern travel technologies. Then there's climate change, which could submerge
coastal cities, cause drought and famine, fuel civil global conflict
-- and give my kids a truly
frightening number of snow
Our world is more
uncertain. Still skeptical? Maybe you're thinking, "OK, global
catastrophe could happen, but surely it's not very likely?" But as our world
has grown more complex, interconnected, and dangerous, the future has grown
correspondingly more uncertain. We have more information than ever before and
greater processing power -- but the pace of global change has far exceeded our
collective ability to understand it, much less manage it.
For most of human history, major technological and social
transformations occurred over thousands of years. The Paleolithic period (or
"Old Stone Age") is presumed to have lasted for a couple of million years, give or
take; the Mesolithic and Neolithic eras got a 5,000 to 10,000 year run;
the Bronze Age and the Iron Age each took a few thousand years. In Europe,
things sped up during the Renaissance and the age of exploration. Enter the
Industrial Revolution, and the pace of change accelerates some more; today, in
the age of Moore's Law,
it's downright dizzying.
For the average European peasant, life in the year 300
wasn't all that different from life in 800 or 1300 or 1700: Life revolved
around hunting, fishing, or farming; the manufacture of goods was on a small
scale; travel was by foot, horse, or ship. Most Americans living in 1900 would
have had more daily experiences in common with Americans living in 1800 -- or
1700, for that matter -- than with Americans living today.
Here's what this means: We literally have no points of
comparison for understanding the scale and scope of the risks faced by humanity
today. Compared to the long, slow sweep of human history, the events of the
last century have taken place in the blink of an eye. This should temper any
pride we feel in recent "achievements" and give us pause when we're tempted to
conclude that today's trends are likely to continue. Rising life expectancy?
That's great, but if climate change has consequences as nasty as some predict,
a century of rising life expectancy could turn out to be a mere blip on the
charts. A steep decline in interstate conflicts? Fantastic, but less than 70 years
of human history isn't much to go on. No nuclear annihilation so far? Whew -- but
what on Earth would make you assume we've "solved" that problem, rather than
just had a run of mostly unmerited good luck?
That's why one can't dismiss the risk of
catastrophic events as "high consequence, low probability." How do we compute
the probability of catastrophic events of a type that has never happened? Does
70 years without nuclear annihilation tell us that there's a low probability of
nuclear catastrophe -- or just tell us that we haven't had a nuclear
Even when we have oodles of data going back over a long
period of time, most of us aren't very good at evaluating risk. We tend to
assume that the way things are is the way things are likely to remain. The
mountain that has been there for thousands of years will probably be there for
another hundred. But we forget that the same logic doesn't hold for everything.
We say, "That tree in the backyard has survived snow and ice storms for a
hundred years -- it's not going to fall down tomorrow!" But when it comes to
trees, having survived for a hundred years generally means there's now more,
rather than less, chance of collapse tomorrow.
Lack of catastrophic change might signify a system in stable
equilibrium, but sometimes -- as with earthquakes -- pressure may be building
up over time, undetected. Often, the problem is that we just don't know enough: If you just planted a new tree in the
backyard from a breed that's never before been planted outside the tropics,
it's hard to know how it will fare in snow. If you're a scientist studying earthquakes,
tornados, or tsunamis, it's one thing to understand the conditions under which they
form, but we still have little ability to predict
their precise time and locations sufficiently in advance to do any good. Is
global stability more like a mountain, more like a tsunami, or more like a
tree? And if it's a tree, is it the kind we're used to or a whole new kind of
Most international security "experts" have about as much
ability to predict the future as you or I would have to predict the weather
just by looking out the window. And the events of recent decades should
undermine everyone's confidence in our collective ability to predict geopolitical
change. Most analysts assumed the Soviet Union was stable -- until it
collapsed. Analysts predicted that Egypt's Hosni Mubarak would retain his firm grip
on power -- until he was ousted. How much of what we currently file under
"Stable" should be recategorized under "Hasn't Collapsed Yet"?
Try to feel the danger and uncertainty in your bones -- not
because it will build character, but because feeling afraid is the only thing
likely to jolt us into action. Wouldn't it be better to try to actively manage
the global risks we face, instead of muddling through and relying on sheer dumb
luck? Right now, U.S. foreign policy is nine parts response and retaliation
and only one part prevention and resilience-building. Taking the risk of
catastrophe seriously would have serious implications for how we think about
budgets, research agendas, and governance, among other things.
But this column is getting long, so I'll save the rest for the
next snow day. Right now, I have to go out and shake some trees -- they're
covered with snow and ice, and I don't
want them to fall down on top of my car.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images